I’ve been thinking a lot about state Sen. Stacey Campfield this week, that erstwhile politician who represents Tennessee 7th District in that fair county to our north.
One might even say I’m obsessed — but not in a funny guy-love kind of way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. I’m just fascinated by the seemingly endless amount of controversy that spews forth every time the guy seems to open his mouth. And in studying on the matter over the past week, I’ve come to the conclusion that Mr. Campfield has to be one of the greatest comedians of our time.
Remember Andy Kaufman? He played the beloved Latka on the TV series “Taxi,” and Jim Carrey starred in “Man on the Moon,” a biography of Kaufman’s life. He was a performance artist more than he was a comedian, creating the memorable Tony Clifton as a piece of “anti-comedy” art. Clifton was a lounge singer who lacked talent, threw temper tantrums, engaged in heated exchanges with audience members and generally did everything possible to annoy and anger all within earshot and eyesight.
Granted, there’s limited appeal for such a shtick, but I, for one, appreciate it greatly. (Neil Hamburger is a contemporary comedian with a similar sort of act; he once gave a “walking tour” of downtown Knoxville during which he made up, on the spot, bizarre “facts” about Knoxville’s history — downtown Krutch Park, he claimed, was the site of a series of child murders by a group of “hobos” in the 1970s.)
Call it black humor or what have you, but I’m a sucker for performance art that thrives on provoking a reaction from those witnessing it. The unexpected, the offensive, the inexplicable ... seeing it pulled off with aplomb gives me great delight. There’s a chewing gum commercial in which a goat, out of nowhere, heat-butts a guy in the crotch, and it’s one of my favorites simply because it’s completely random and bizarre.
In fact, I love pulling practical jokes that have a similar effect. I once called the wonderful proprietor of Southland Books, Lisa Misosky, and impersonated our beloved editor, Dean Stone. And berated her for a good 2 minutes, demanding the money she’d made off of my Blount County “Snapshots” books. (She never had any to sell, but as “Mr. Stone,” I insisted otherwise. And yes, I let her off the hook before hanging up.)
I once donned a pair of my wife’s bikini bottoms during a family vacation to the beach and proceeded to sashay down to the shore, to the screaming consternation of family members, and chased my horrified brother down the beach.
I did those things because (a) I’m a scoundrel (and that’s using a much nicer term than most folks would probably use) and because (b) I love to see and hear the reactions I get to such pranks.
Which brings us back to Mr. Campfield. I am convinced that his entire legislative career is one big practical joke on us all. He’s playing the role of the straight man (no pun intended) and has coined this fictional, backwards, homophobic legislator whose every interview leads to news blurbs on late-night talk shows around the country. And he’s sitting at home at night, laughing until he busts the buttons off of his dapper white dress shirts, reading all of the scathing editorials and emails and reveling in how much the joke is on all of us.
I see no other explanation. I mean, look at his distinguished legislative “career” since first going to Nashville in 2004:
• He tried to join the legislative Black Caucus in 2005 and described their bylaws as being more restrictive than those of the Ku Klux Klan.
• In 2007, he sponsored a bill to issue death certificates to aborted fetuses — because he wanted people to see how many abortions are being performed in Tennessee, despite the fact that such procedures are required to be reported to the Tennessee Office of Vital Records.
• He sponsored a bill in 2008 requiring public colleges in Tennessee to allow their full-time employees with handgun permits to carry their weapons on campus, despite opposition from the Tennessee Board of Regents.
• He proposed a bill in 2008 to prohibit public colleges in the state from admitting illegal immigrants ... because that’s apparently a huge problem, I guess.
And of course, there’s the whole “don’t say gay” thing, which has been back in the public spotlight this week. (And we’re not even getting into the proposal to eliminate state assistance from kids who don’t perform well academically.) In the course of the past week, Campfield has engaged in back-and-forth in the comments section of the Knoxville daily newspaper’s website, compared homosexuality to injecting heroin and claimed that AIDS rates in Africa are so high because anal sex is so popular there.
I’m a bit stunned. And so, given my proclivity for humor that’s in poor taste and elicits outrage, disgust and disbelief in equal amounts, I have to say to Sen. Campfield: Bravo, sir. The past week is a stroke of genius, I must say.
I could deal with a few more years of this, but a lot of my fellow Tennesseans are growing tired of the fact that your backward-thinking alter-ego is making everyone in our state look like a troglodyte.
So I believe it’s time to deliver the punchline and let everyone off the hook. You had a good run, but c’mon. Your act is stretching the limits of credulity. People are going to start thinking you actually believe all of this.
Steve Wildsmith is the Weekend editor for The Daily Times. Contact him at (firstname.lastname@example.org) or at 981-1144.